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Syria says Russian withdrawal was no surprise to Assad's government

GENEVA (Reuters) - Russia’s withdrawal of forces from Syria was no surprise to Damascus, Bashar Ja’afari, head of the Syrian government delegation at peace talks in Geneva, said on Wednesday.

A Russian pilot gets inside a Sukhoi Su-25 fighter jet shortly before the take-off, part of the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, at Hmeymim airbase, Syria, March 15, 2016. REUTERS/Russian Ministry of Defence/Vadim Grishankin/Handout via Reuters

More than five months after they started air strikes to bolster President Bashar al-Assad, President Vladimir Putin said on Monday that most Russian forces would leave, and almost half have already left, according to a Reuters calculation.

“The Russian decision to withdraw partially from Syria was taken jointly by a common decision, taken both by President Putin and President Assad. So it wasn’t a surprise for us,” Ja’afari told reporters.

He said Russia’s military involvement in Syria was a matter that would be constantly reviewed by both countries.

“The day they will leave or withdraw or redeploy their forces partially or totally, it will be done again and again and again through a joint Syrian-Russian coordination action.”

Ja’afari rejected talk of a federal model for Syria, in response to a move by Syrian Kurds to announce a federal structure of government in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria.

“What we talking about here is how keep the unity of Syria,” he said.

He also rejected a suggestion by the opposition High Negotiations Committee that the Geneva talks should move to a direct format, saying nobody should have a monopoly on representing the opposition.

He described the HNC chief negotiator Mohammad Alloush as a terrorist, saying the rebel group he belongs to, and which controls large swathes of the besieged suburbs of Damascus, was responsible for the death of many innocent people.

“We will not engage with this terrorist in direct talks, with this terrorist in particular, and so there won’t be any direct talks unless this terrorist apologises and also shaves off his beard,” Ja’afari said.

Ja’afari also said he had “useful and promising” talks with the U.N. deputy Syria envoy Ramzy Ezzeldin, noting that procedural issues had to be thrashed out before moving to an agenda that tackled divisive issues.

Ramzy said there had been “important progress” in the last few days and the reduction in violence on the ground had been reflected in the attitude of the delegations at the talks.

He noted some common ground in papers submitted by the two parties but said important differences remained to be bridged.

Reporting by Tom Miles, Suleiman al-Khalidi and Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Louise Ireland